Chinese Journalist Goes on Trial for Tweets After Nine Months in Prison

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Chinese journalist Zhang Jialong went on trial Wednesday for the “crime” of using Twitter to distribute “a great amount of false information that defamed the image” of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

This got him arrested on the CCP’s one-size-fits-all-dissidents charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” As is customary in China’s repressive justice system, Zhang has been held without trial or formal charges since August and has not been allowed to see his wife and child.

Zhang’s trial was reported by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, an independent agency chaired by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). The Commission called on the Chinese government to release Zhang immediately and put an end to its “increasingly draconian” censorship of the press:

Zhang has been targeted by CCP thugs since 2010 when he wrote the first of many articles about unjust censorship, the demolition of an art studio because the artist became politically troublesome. He was arrested in 2011 because he called attention to a planned strike by Beijing taxi drivers.

In 2014, he interviewed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Beijing and asked for America to help “freedom-loving Chinese” tear down “the Great Firewall of censorship” constructed by the Chinese government. 

Zhang also asked Kerry to visit the wife of dissident Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Prize-winning human rights advocate and political prisoner who died of liver cancer three years later while under guard in a Chinese hospital, his wife cruelly held under house arrest and kept silent while he wasted away.

Kerry later asked the regime in Beijing to go easier on censorship and show some compassion for its political prisoners, but nothing came of either request. Kerry claimed his meeting with Zhang and three other Chinese bloggers was the first time he was told American tech companies were helping the Chinese government control Internet access.

Zhang was subsequently fired from his job as a journalist and editor by online giant Tencent, ostensibly for “leaking business secrets and other confidential and sensitive information.” 

Zhang said he was told by his department head that he was fired for the “radical statements” he made to Kerry, and for exposing CCP propaganda directives. One of those directives forbid all Chinese media for reporting what was said during Kerry’s meeting with Zhang and the other bloggers. The U.S. State Department said it was “deeply concerned” and “very troubled” that Zhang was fired after talking to Kerry.

Zhang tried to keep writing without his Tencent position, working to expose the scale and brutality of Chinese censorship, which he warned was growing steadily worse under the leadership of dictator Xi Jinping. He published an article at Foreign Policy in April 2014 ridiculing the CCP’s claims that its growing censorship drive was aimed primarily at cleansing pornography from the Internet:

The party has long controlled the media. One lever for doing so has been legal ambiguity; China does not have clear regulations governing  news, and so it’s unclear when a line has been crossed. The goal of the new campaign is to move the line again, putting pressure on the rights of reporters and netizens who wish to express their own opinions.

It’s a method of speech control we’ve seen all too often. Ever since President Xi Jinping came to power in November 2012, central authorities have been tightening the net, detaining a growing number of reporters and netizens. Shortly after Xi took the reins, the CPD prohibited “foreign media personnel” from “irresponsible” Weibos, meaning micro-blog postings, and ordered that certain websites be subject to “manual review” and strict regulation. The goal was to control the flow of information between Chinese netizens and foreigners. And the CPD is trying to smother mentions of Xu Zhiyong — it issued a Jan. 26 order prohibiting anything that “hypes” the civil society organizer, who was sentenced that day to four years in prison for the spurious charges of “assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.”

The Chinese constitution explicitly provides for freedom of speech — but in practice, authorities don’t respect that right at all. China’s Criminal Law already criminalizes “inciting others to overthrow national authorities” and other types of speech. Chinese authorities have erected the so-called Great Firewall of Censorship to keep out foreign social and mainstream media like Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube, not to mention the New York Times.

His final blog post was published in 2014, but he has been active on Twitter, which is forbidden to Chinese citizens but routinely used by CCP officials, Communist Party internet operatives, and bot networks to spread their propaganda. Vice News noted on Wednesday that official CCP accounts on Twitter have tripled over the past year and their activity has increased by 400 percent, a surge that appears to have been triggered by the protest movement in Hong Kong and intensified as the CCP attempts to control the worldwide political narrative of the Wuhan coronavirus.

Zhang’s last Tweet was in June, when he posted a photo of his one-day-old daughter in her hospital cart with the message, “Every life is precious”:

Zhang’s wife Shao Yuan told Philippine news site Rappler that her husband was taken in for “questioning” about “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” on the evening of August 13. She was not told until the following morning that he was under arrest and has not seen him since.

Shao said she did not “understand the reason for this sudden detention,” as her husband had not written a blog post in years and last used Twitter a few months before his arrest.

“Zhang wasn’t able to find any stable work after he lost his job at Tencent. He was tutoring students to make ends meet,” she said. “Our daughter just turned two months old. I feel really helpless and I don’t know what to do.”

Zhang’s trial on Wednesday reportedly lasted only a few hours and was held in a largely empty courtroom due to the coronavirus (which the CCP claims has been almost completely eradicated from China). Shao Yuan was present for the hearing and was able to “briefly exchange a few words” with her husband, in addition to pleading for compassionate treatment from the court because she has a young child to raise and cannot work due to the pandemic.

The U.S. State Department once again expressed its disapproval of Zhang’s persecution.

“We are concerned to see Chinese authorities prosecute yet another journalist for simply voicing his opinion. We urge the CCP to free Zhang Jialong,” said State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.

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